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Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, Simon and Schuster, 2003, 190 pp. (originally published in 1953)

Fahrenheit 451 is one of Bradbury's most famous books, and it reads like a fever dream -- intensely cinematic, directed by its own weird dream logic, and full of the quality of images that haunt you for days. The book is a cautionary tale about what happens when books are forgotten or actively suppressed, and it forms one of its own best arguments in favour of the book as a keystone to intellectual freedom. The society it describes is a dystopia, but unlike other famous dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World, the book holds out some hope, however fragile and tentative. Fahrenheit 451 is a deceptive book too; it's a quick read, and it seems to be about people burning books.

Fahrenheit 451 begins with a famous opening line: "It was a pleasure to burn" (33), a line which resonates throughout the book in interesting ways. The story centres on a man named Guy Montag, who is a fireman, but in his future, the houses are all fireproof and the main job of the fireman is to find books and burn them. By the third page of the story, though, we have already learned of Montag's unease with the repressive social order that his profession helps to prop up. He meets the neighbour girl, Clarisse McClellan, who is out walking one night when he is returning from work. After an unsettling conversation, Clarisse asks him if he is happy, and his ready answer is belied by his sudden realization that not everything is all right. This is followed closely by what happens when Montag arrives at home. His wife Mildred has overdosed on sleeping pills and needs to have her stomach pumped. Mildred participates enthusiastically in all of the distractions the society has ordained for her: driving too fast in her car, listening to her Seashell all night, and most of all, paying attention to the "family" in her living room, three walls of which have been converted to giant televisions. But none of these are enough. The next morning Mildred denies that the overdose ever took place.

Montag also becomes disillusioned while at work. For one thing, the Mechanical Hound, a strange and terrible robotic beast that is kept in a kennel at the firehouse, doesn't seem too certain of his scent anymore, and the Hound always gets its prey. And the Fire Chief, a disquieting and intelligent man, begins to doubt Montag's devotion to his job. What would it hurt to save one book from the next fire? Does Montag even see his own role in society as clearly as the Fire Chief does his? The rest of the book is a snapshot of Montag's journey from fireman to human being, which is the reason why the book has endured as long as it has. Bradbury is not talking about the physical burning of books, although that too can be part of the spectrum of things he refers to. Book burning is a singularly effective metaphor, set up as it is to hit a hot button at the literal level.

The book is divided into three sections: "The Hearth and the Salamander" introduces Montag at home and at work; "The Sieve and the Sand" finds Montag increasingly disillusioned with his society; and "Burning Bright" concerns Montag's escape and the eventual end of the society he left behind. The sections are 40-60 pages in length, and the overall book is perhaps shorter than its reputation would suggest. It's somewhat of a truism that Bradbury's writing works best at shorter lengths -- he has written a number of novels after all. Fahrenheit 451 has the same strong imagistic writing as Bradbury's short stories, and this has the effect of making the book seem longer. The compressed bursts of metaphor and description and tangled phrase tend to slow the mind's eye as the extra layer of meaning and intent gets deciphered. Take, for example, the famous opening line of the book, and the subsequent paragraph:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning. (33)

This is almost everything we need to know about Montag and why he has been a fireman. This is also some extraordinary writing, and indicative of what's to come prose-wise: several metaphors can be jammed into one sentence, and repetition of words and rhythms is used very carefully.

Bradbury can be an off-kilter plotter. Clarisse, who arrives in to the book like a breath of fresh air, is killed off within a few pages. This is tragic, of course, but also shocking. Readers who come to the book with expectations that have been conditioned by repeated exposure to conventional plots will find this most true. Ironically, in Truffaut's version (see my review), by no means a conventional movie, Clarisse survives all the way to the end of the story, and as Bradbury points out in his introduction to this edition, Clarisse also survives in the play and the opera that he wrote based on his own book. Leaving aside for the moment that Clarisse's death removes the only charismatic and non-passive female character, I don't mind the way that her death functions in the book. It's a shock, but she is also balanced thematically and structurally by the introduction of an older male character, a former professor named Faber. The young girl and the old man serve as guides for Montag on his journey of self-awareness.

Both Brave New World and 1984 ended with the total victory of the totalitarian state and the breakdown or suicide of the individual. Fahrenheit 451 is a little different. Bradbury's book argues that such a repressive society, in support of which the firemen burn so many books, would self-implode, simply because it has no flexibility and has no fertile ground of old ideas to generate new ideas. The victory of the individual at the end of Fahrenheit 451 is achieved at the cost of the self-destruction of the rest of society, which is scant hope for those individuals who are currently in the grip of a repressive system. Indeed, the bookish rebels that Montag meets at the end of the story are simply waiting; they are in no way actively encouraging change. It's amazing in a way that Bradbury can pull off such a dispassionate and non-heroic ending. Is Bradbury's optimism naive? The methods of control in Montag's society are certainly clumsy and inefficient compared to the biological ones used in Brave New World. It's reassuring to have at least one cautionary tale that has a hopeful ending.

The strength of Bradbury's vision leaves this future etched in our minds long after the book is finished. His collection of strange speculations somehow works, probably because he is working so effectively on our fears: crazy teenagers, out to drive over helpless pedestrians; a war that no one cares about, but eventually ends our civilization; relationships completely empty of emotion and the systemic stifling of minds. There is deep loneliness in this book, the lonely of heart and the lonely of mind. It becomes unbearably sad, and what replacement for intimacy, for humanity, can the literary gathering at the end ever be? Bradbury wants to hold out hope, I think, and it's not the literal solution that he trusts in. Everyone should read this book. Not to find out about the Mechanical Hound, or the future and its gadgets, or anything like that. This book doesn't predict the future and it doesn't want to. We find in Bradbury's creation a small part of our own angst, and in turn it creates an outlet for our own unbearable rage. The book is an astonishing masterpiece.

Fahrenheit 451 is available in a 50th Anniversary Edition from Simon and Schuster. This is one of those "prestige" hardcover editions; it looks handsome but its restraint feels a little divorced from the vivid narrative between the covers. The edition includes three introductions by Bradbury, from 1966, 1993, and 2003 respectively. Unfortunately, the three introductions repeat some material, such as the inspiration for the book and the manner in which it was written. Otherwise, these introductions make for fascinating reading.

Also see the review of the movie based on this book.

First posted: January 19, 1998; Last modified: February 22, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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